When we woke up it was cold. Damn cold. A frigid six degrees in the Black Hills of Wyoming. It was what I had been waiting for in three seasons of hunting mule deer there. Cold and snow. Fresh snow. Four to six inches of it covering up everything. A perfect day for tracking. After ten days of mild weather, a cold front would put the deer on the move during the rut, and I was finally there for it.
When we arrived at the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land we’d be hunting just northeast of Osage, WY conditions were miserable. The wind was howling from the northwest, seemingly aimed at finding every seam in my cold weather gear* and exploiting it. Snow was blowing so hard it became encrusted in my beard, and I’d started wondering if I was prepared to hunt in this kind of cold. I’m a native south Floridian, after all, and even though I had moved north over a decade ago, it was to Kentucky, not Ice Hell. We walked southeast down the road with the plan that we’d start at the far end where we’d seen some does bedded down and work our way back to where we started so that we’d have the wind in our face for most of the hunt. After a mile or so we found what we were looking for. Tracks. Not any set of tracks, but tracks of what we were confident was a buck. He was alone, not a common occurrence for muley does, and on a steady pace right in to where we were hunting. As soon as we cut those tracks, the hunt was on. The wind and cold seemed to disappear, all my senses switching towards looking at where those tracks were headed with the hopes we might catch a glimpse of a the buck we were after.
Tracking is hard. Though the concept of following an animal through fresh snow seems easy enough, it’s brutally difficult. You know the tracks you’re following will end at a deer at some point, but you have no idea whether that will be in fifty yards or five miles. Your pace is snail-like yet deliberate as you make your way trying not to make a sound or a movement that might catch the attention of a deer which through untold generations has evolved to process any noise or motion as a potential threat. Your eyes are constantly surveying everything around you; your ears listening for the slightest sound ahead. Your rifle is at the ready with your thumb on the safety. This kind of hunting requires stamina. It’s a slow motion ballet where each step is precisely choreographed to make as little sound and motion as possible, and where moving one hundred yards in an hour isn’t unreasonably slow. It’s mentally and physically exhausting.
We followed these tracks for about three hundred yards (which took well over half an hour to cover) until they met up with the tracks of smaller deer, likely does and fawns. After reading a maze of tracks that seemed to circle over and over with the sole intention of confusing John and I, the buck moved onward, apparently satisfied that the does he had run in to either weren’t ready for him or already had a buck of their own. As we slowly moved on in the steady wake of our buck we came to a dawning realization: we were quickly coming on the edge of the BLM land we could hunt. Within a few dozen yards we’d be at the end of the trail even if he had kept going with his tracks as clear as day. Always vigilant about being legal and respecting property rights, we decided to cut the chase short. To give up on the deer we’d been tracking for well over a mile. He was gone even if he was just one hundred feet away.
Where we gave up on our deer we were in pretty good position. We were close to a high point over the terrain of open sage flats and finger ridges leading up in to the hills. The ridges flanked draws that are a perfect place for deer to bed down during a cold, blustery day. We were in an ecotone. That ecological transition zone known to be the home of big deer.
As we sat on this point trying mightily yet unsuccessfully to escape the wind, we glassed over a lot of country, looking at every sagebush and rock big enough to see. We both looked at every square inch of that area, and then we looked again. Nothing. Even though we could see for miles out, we couldn’t see a single deer.
When we were satisfied that we’d done all the work we could do from that point I was reminded of an old SCUBA diving proverb: plan your dive, and dive your plan. We had a plan. So we decided to hunt it. We would slowly still hunt in to the wind and search every one of those draws, knowing that eventually we’d run in to deer. Some of them had already been searched that morning by a coyote looking for one of the many rabbits we’d crossed. If we didn’t see any sign of a deer entering the draw from its mouth, we’d move up on the finger ridge of the downwind side and search it from above. We knew the area supported deer, we could see their tracks, we just had to find them. On the third or fourth draw, we finally ran in to some deer: while up on one of the ridges, I had the fleeting glimpse of a doe slowly and leisurely making her way in to the draw. She didn’t seem spooked. She had no idea we were there. A couple of seconds later John spotted her fawn in the shadow of a tree and the small cedar next to it, just a few yards above where I had seen the doe. She stared intently at us for about 30 seconds seeming to sense something was’t quite right, but not being spooked enough to want to get away in any kind of hurry. The moment we lost track of that fawn we started to intently dress down the trees below us, but it was just too thick to see much anything.
That draw was neither very wide, perhaps thirty or forty yards across, nor very deep, but the side we were on, the side that faced northwest, was covered in scrub brush and short pine and cedar thickets. It was the perfect place to find deer bedding for the day. As we moved in to the draw I saw a set of coyote tracks, so I followed them. Surely a seasoned predator would have a better idea on how to find a deer hidden in its bed better than I would, but I saw that it quickly circled, and went right back out of the draw. Either way, we knew there was deer in there. We had seen them just a couple of minutes earlier, and they didn’t seem all too eager to leave their sanctuary.
As we slowly creeped in to that draw, I was aware of every flake of snow beneath my feet. We looked in to those thickets and saw what we had seen on the ridge: a wall of tangled branches on that north facing side. Not one that would stop our movement so much as it would stop our sight, though it would surely also stop our movement (or at least quiet movement). That thicket was near impenetrable to our eyes, but it was there and we had to look.
When looking for a deer at close range you don’t really look for a deer. You look for a trunk that’s just a little too straight, or some branches just a little too vertical, the white of a muley butt, or the flicker of an ear. But even if there were a deer just a couple of yards in, I likely wouldn’t have seen it.
After both John and I had been looking in to those trees for what was just a minute or so, I heard something. I slowly turned to John and in a hushed whisper, despite knowing exactly what that sound was, asked, “Did you just burp?” He shook his head no.
The buck we knew we’d find wherever we found does grunted from just a few yards away. We knew where he was, he wasn’t more than a dozen yards through that thicket, but we couldn’t see him. We needed ten fewer trees.
After I heard that grunt, I decided to move in on him. He was close; right out in front of me. With my rifle at the ready and my thumb on the safety, I inched forward through the snow feeling every flake as they crunched under my boots. When I came to a log that was just around the other side of the closest tree, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. Subtle dots in the snow, right underneath where a large deer had just been standing. At first I was creating a shadow over the spots so the color was obscured, but as soon as I moved and let the sun shine down, I knew exactly what it was. That buck had just sprayed pee. He was there. We heard him. He left his scent for us just seconds before we got to where he was. But we missed him. We were ten seconds too late.
As we followed the tracks from that spot we quickly came to a realization. He was gone. His doe and her fawn too. They scampered up the back of the northwest side of the draw, circled back, a common tactic used by mule deer on the run, and disappeared like ghosts in the snow.
After we left through the back of that draw we knew we had missed that buck by that much. All we needed was ten more seconds or ten fewer trees.
* Bottom half: Smartwool log johns; Stormkloth II pants (SK Fleece). Top half: Under Armour HeatGear base layer; Under Armour ColdGear Scent Control Hoodie; Under Armour Ayton Vest; Stormkloth II Jacket (SK Fleece). Head: Carhartt Acrylic Watch Hat in Brite Orange. Feet: Smartwool Hunt Extra Heavy OTC; Under Armour 7″ Speed Freek. Hands: Manzella Ranger Pro-tip gloves.